When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter over seven years ago, nothing made me more anxious than choosing her name. Not even the labor. With this one choice we were filling in a lifetime of place cards, registration forms, labels on prescriptions, beginnings to love letters, wedding invitations, “Hey, ____!” and on, and on and on. To me and my husband, choosing the name for her was everything. After much debate, we peacefully settled on Emma Grace. It fits her, somehow. And we are thankful that at least this parenting decision was a good one.
If you are a fellow writer, do you experience similar anxiety naming your characters? Did the authors of celebrated literature struggle as well? There are some unforgettable names in literature that have stuck with me over time, and I can’t help but wonder how the stories might have changed in my mind had the names been different.
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Bathsheba Everdene from Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)
Ebinezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
Holden Caulfield from The Cather in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Let’s face it, The Great Jones doesn’t have quite the same effect, does it?
Brian Klems writes, “[A name] has to suit the character’s personality, makes sense for the era and, most important, be super awesome.” (Check out his Writer’s Digest post on the The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters where he shares tips from author Elizabeth Sims.) The naming process can be as intentional and calculated as you’d like. Dan Schmidt gives some great practical exercises in 8 Tips for Naming Characters. My favorite is using maps!
I love the names of my characters in Good Graces. Most of them were easy to land on. I quite agree with Stephen Poliakoff, acclaimed British playright, director, and screenwriter, quoted in a David Jays article in The Guardian. “The name comes out of the character,” he says. “I often see them, but just don’t know what to call them. And if I give them the wrong name, I find I can’t write – it’s all to do with unlocking the stream of thought.” If it’s not the right name, you just know it. While I may not have looked up origins of all the names or consulted a notebook full of scribbled ideas, I do have my reasons for a few of them.
Olivia Johnson, our female protagonist, goes by Livy. I wanted a feminine name that could be shortened to show she was missing something…seeking something to fulfill her. Livy also sounds like “living” — a nod to being on the up and down journey of life.
Jack Bowdon, our male protagonist, is stable and strong, friendly and dependable. The old-fashioned name Jack fits this personality, in my opinion. Bowdon has special personal meaning, my great-grandmother’s last name. In my own life, she owned a cottage that inspired the one you’ll read about at the center of the novel. It was a place I feel safe, a place Livy felt safe too. With this name link, for me Jack’s last name is a nod to Livy’s past and future coming together.
To me, despite the pressure that comes with the important decision, naming my characters is really enjoyable. Like naming my daughter, it is securing each character’s place in the world. How they’ll be remembered. If you’re a writer, tell me about your process for naming your characters. If you’re a reader, what are some of your favorite character names from stories you’ve read?